Few players have ever gotten the kind of sendoff Youkilis did on that day, leaving the field to a standing ovation after knocking an RBI triple and being lifted for a pinch runner. It was an impressive show of appreciation for a player who not only gave 100 percent effort on each and every play throughout his career, but was generally viewed — along with Dustin Pedroia — as the embodiment of what Red Sox baseball is all about.
With that kind of closure, few would imagine — though many fans surely hoped — that Youkilis would be seen wearing Boston’s colors again. However, with the White Sox declining the 33-year-old’s $13 million option for 2013 on Tuesday, could a reunion actually happen?
It’s an interesting scenario to think about, and one that shouldn’t be immediately written off.
In short, the circumstances under which Youkilis was traded from the Red Sox have changed dramatically. At the time, not only was there no place for him on the field — pushed out by rookie Will Middlebrooks‘ stellar play at third base, and having nowhere else to go with Adrian Gonzalez entrenched at first — but the relationship between Youkilis and manager Bobby Valentine had probably soured irreparably.
But now, John Farrell is the boss in Boston, and though Middlebrooks remains, Gonzalez has since been exported to Los Angeles, leaving a gaping hole at first base as the Red Sox head into the offseason looking to retool for 2013. Add to that an uninspiring free agent market for corner infielders, and returning Youkilis to his seemingly natural home is an option that both sides should at least consider.
For Youkilis, it would be a chance to return to a place where he’s already had championship success, and a ballpark where he owns a .911 career OPS. Likewise, for the Red Sox it could represent the opportunity to not only plug a hole with a viable option, but perhaps win back some of the goodwill lost during a season which finished 24 games below .500.
Of course, the danger in such a move for the Sox is Youkilis’ potentially diminishing skill set. Although his numbers improved upon heading to the South Side of Chicago, he didn’t exactly tear it up with the White Sox, even with regular at-bats, owning a .771 OPS in 80 games. Add to that questionable defense at third base entering his mid-30s, and it’s pretty much a no-brainer that Youkilis wasn’t worth $13 million.
That being said, the Red Sox wouldn’t be asking Youkilis to play third, he’d be going across the diamond to play a much less demanding position. Moreover, despite his diminishing power, Youkilis retains one of the best eyes in baseball, walking 37 times in those 80 games — on-base skills which were sorely lacking from the Sox by the end of the season.
Of course, like all things in baseball, a potential reunion would come down to financial terms and length of commitment. Although the Red Sox have oodles of financial flexibility with the August trade that shipped out Gonzalez, Josh Beckett and Carl Crawford, the lesson the team was admitting through ridding itself of those contracts was that overpaying for talent rarely works out in the long term.
And this is where things might get complicated.
Although the White Sox are reportedly interested in bringing Youkilis back at a lower base salary, conventional wisdom says that it wouldn’t be a burdensome commitment in terms of cash or duration. If nothing else has stuck from the introduction of Moneyball principles, it’s that overextending yourself for a player on the wrong side of 30 already in decline is almost never a good idea. Aubrey Huff, who signed a two-year deal with San Francisco following his team-leading offense in a 2010 World Series campaign, is such a cautionary tale.
So, do not expect the Red Sox to go outside their comfort zone to sign Youkilis — assuming they would even want him back — even for a player with such a storied history with the team. But that being said, with the best potential first-base free agents on the market including names like Adam LaRoche, Nick Swisher and Mike Napoli, Youkilis could be an attractive option insofar as he could well mimic their production for a fraction of the cost and duration of commitment.
There are any number of reasons such a reunion might be out of the question, but it’s an option both Youkilis and the Red Sox would be remiss to not at least consider.